September 28, 2012 | Violence Against Women
NGOs Should Encourage the Government to Expand the Tools Used to Combat Human Trafficking
President Obama’s speech Tuesday on human trafficking, and the accompanying Executive Order on Strengthening Protections in Federal Contracts that was issued, reaffirmed an important message—we should be concerned. Since our founding fathers, the American people have cherished liberty, equality, justice, and freedom, even when we have fallen short of preserving them. Despite the fact that human trafficking is estimated to affect millions of people still today, Americans have managed to have little exposure to a practice that sexually exploits women and children, forces laborers to work endlessly with little pay, and attempts to strip people of their humanity—all within our borders.
Civil society has long argued that combatting this despicable multi-billion dollar illicit business should be a natural fit with our government’s policy and programming priorities, but surprisingly, counter trafficking has commanded limited human and financial resources across administrations.
According to the Executive Order, the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Human Trafficking will take the valuable step of developing a strategic plan to assist trafficking victims. The Administration, along with Humanity United and the Goldman Sachs Foundation, has also helped to establish a multi-million dollar grant for local communities to assist survivors of this human rights violation. This type of collaboration on victim’s assistance is vital, although public-private working relationships in this space are not unprecedented.
For example, the Polaris Project has administered the national toll-free trafficking hotline for years, helping to aid U.S. trafficking victims, as well as to pass on valuable information to law enforcement authorities, when appropriate. The hotline is largely funded by the Department of Health and Human Services, but would likely go unused if not for the reputation of this NGO.
Other efforts by non-profits to engage the government often focus on legislative reform. The Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST), for instance, is a coalition of anti-trafficking organizations committed to eradicating modern-day slavery. ATEST has been instrumental in encouraging legislators to renew the centerpiece of federal legislation on trafficking, the now-expired Trafficking Victims Protection Re-authorization Act.
ECPAT-USA, a NGO focused on stopping child prostitution, pornography, and trafficking, has also played a valuable role in pressuring state governments to amend legislation referred to as “safe harbor” laws. “Safe harbor” laws ensure that if someone under 18 is arrested for prostitution, he or she is treated as a victim of sexual exploitation, not a prosecutable criminal.
Despite these powerful examples of the not-for-profit community working with governments to ensure that trafficking victims are treated justly, trafficking is more than just a human rights issue and victims’ services can only help those who have already fallen prey to it. What is needed, in addition to the steps outlined by the Administration, is a broad examination of the tools used to prevent trafficking from happening, in the first place.
The U.S. government has well-developed strategies and programs to counter other illicit activities, including narcotics trafficking, arms smuggling, and terrorism. Why, then, has the government not applied more of these tools, such as freezing assets and travel restrictions, to mitigate the relative ease and profitability of another major illicit activity—human trafficking?
Perhaps the hesitation to do so is an unintended consequence of the perception that human trafficking is a human rights “issue,” requiring human rights-related “responses,” such as victims services. Human rights violations are an insoluble element of trafficking, but the illicit nature and the accompanying security-related consequences of human trafficking should not be downplayed.
Human trafficking’s overlap with security stems not only from government’s duty to protect the security of those vulnerable to trafficking, but also from the national security-related weaknesses upon which trafficking thrives—unsecure borders, falsified passports, and money laundering, to name a few.
The Administration’s renewed public focus on human trafficking is an opportunity for civil society to press the government to evaluate all forms of human trafficking, as well as the approach used to counter it. As civil society helps government with victim’s assistance, law enforcement training, and federal contract compliance measures, we should also encourage our government to develop a systematic counter-trafficking strategy, leveraging many of the assets used to mitigate other security-related challenges.
Investing in new technologies to gather data, increasing intelligence gathering, and reviewing our visa and sanctions policies should all be on the to-do list for both the public and private sectors. If we fail to think ambitiously about how America can use our most advanced preventative tools, we stand less of a chance of having a significant impact on the trafficking industry and perhaps, more importantly, fully preserving our American ideals.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the McCain Institute.
Jane Mosbacher Morris is the Director of Humanitarian Action at the McCain Institute for International Leadership and focuses on the Institute’s efforts to combat human trafficking, among other issues. Before joining the McCain Institute, Ms. Mosbacher Morris worked for over five years in the United States Department of State in both the Bureau of Counterterrorism and the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues. Ms. Mosbacher Morris holds a MBA from Columbia Business School.